“Why can’t you come on our farm excursion?” my 9 year old son pleads with that whiney tone of voice that kids master by the age of three. “Sam’s Mum comes to every excursion and I want YOU to come!” He looks up at me with sad blue eyes and I melt. I take a deep breath and deliver the standard response: “I’d love to come sweetie, really I would. But I have to work today, you know that.” He drops his lower lip with exaggerated disappointment and shuffles away from me muttering something about how he wishes I didn’t have to work all the time and could bake “yummy” cakes like Sam’s Mum or help at school like Matthew’s Mum instead. I’m left standing alone in the kitchen feeling overwhelmed with guilt and inadequacy.
If you're a working mum, you'll know exactly what I’m talking about - the feeling of being constantly torn as we are forced to choose between our family and our career on a daily basis, the stress of being pulled in several directions at once, the frantic rushing everywhere and never getting anywhere on time, the pressure of trying to do 100 things at once and inevitably not doing anything well, the interruptions, distractions and unexpected “surprises” that prevent you from completing anything you start and the futile striving to achieve a sense of the unattainable balance and harmony that continues to lie just beyond our reach.
At any one time, we fulfil an infinite variety of roles; cook, cleaner, nanny, taxi driver, teacher's aide, laundry maid, nurse, shopper, supervisor, psychologist, detective, politician, safety warden and (most fun of all) whipping boy. Somewhere between these jobs, we endeavour to fit in our paid work too. What do we get to feel as a reward for our skilled multi-tasking? We wonder if we've done any of it properly and experience inadequacy, frustration, disillusionment, weariness and self-condemnation. And that’s not the worst of it; being strong, resilient women we can actually cope with those negative elements. But ask any working Mum what worries her the most and she’ll tell you – it’s GUILT!
Guilt about not being a good enough Mum, and guilt about not being a dedicated enough business woman or employee. This double bind creates the belief that we’re failing in both areas and so defines the working Mum’s dilemma - where we start trying to compensate for the areas we feel we’re failing or lacking in and therefore add even more tasks and responsibilities to our already hectic schedule, making it even more challenging to achieve the outcomes we want so that we feel even more ineffectual and even more guilty. It's a never-ending, relentless cycle making it physically impossible to do anything as well as we’d like. That's where the guilt comes charging in, and it’s a difficult thing to reconcile.
It’s interesting (and irritating) that working Dads don’t seem to feel the same guilt about working and raising children. It’s apparently taken for granted that (most) Dads will continue to work after the arrival of children and that this decision will not only be widely accepted and respected, but even commended as proof of his love and commitment to his family.
So what is this guilt all about? Women, and especially mothers, seem to have an intrinsic knack for feeling guilty. We can intellectualise the concept of having a successful career and being a good mother but we don’t really believe it. The conventional adage of “you can't have your cake and eat it too” has been installed in our maternal DNA, causing us to constantly feel that we’re not doing a good job of either being a mother or a career woman.
Unrealistic expectations play a huge part in contributing to the guilt and strike at the core of who we are as women. Clark Kent had to be Superman but he didn’t have a family to support. Every working mother feels the emotional and physical pressure to be Superwoman. As we continually get pulled in several directions at once, our personal insecurities are exposed, our priorities are challenged and our identities are judged and criticised. Not surprisingly, we are left feeling vulnerable and unable to win. Our initial resolve is severely tested and we may even start to believe the myth that our children are being deprived or disadvantaged in some crucial way. Far from feeling like “Super Mum”, we resign ourselves to the notion that perhaps we’re just “Bad Mum”. We fall into bed at night completely spent and exhausted yet still anxiously chanting “Gotta make it up to my kids” and vowing to catch up on the hours spent at work by giving full attention and quality time to our children and being a better Mum tomorrow night or this weekend.
Guilt has a constructive function after a genuine act of wrong-doing and is valuable in drawing attention to our conscience or inner voice. But many of us over-indulge our guilt and allow it to stop us taking pride in who we are, or feeling any satisfaction in what we do in our roles as mothers and professional women. Then guilt becomes an extremely destructive emotion; draining productive energy, sapping self esteem, inflicting shame and causing regret.
Of course our kids need us and we wish we had more time with them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel pleasure and pride from our work. Whether we are in the position of needing to work or choosing to work, it’s important to recognise that work is a vital part of who we are. Freud said that people (and I think we can safely assume that includes women and mothers) need both work and love. Both contribute to who we are. The juggling act isn’t easy, in fact there are times when it’s downright near impossible, but being true to ourselves and what we want for our own life and that of our family makes it worthwhile and meaningful. It’s possible to absolutely love being a mother, whilst also enjoying the stimulation of working. It’s a realistic and respectable ambition for women to want to stay at work whilst still being loving, present, engaged and caring mothers to their children. This is not shameful - and it's not impossible to achieve.
So let’s be who we are and when we feel those inevitable pangs of guilt after a particularly hectic and stressful day, remember the resiliency of children who know they are loved and know we are doing our best to look after them in every way we know how. Remind ourselves that our children are not being short-changed because we aren’t at home with them during their every waking hour. On the contrary, they are being given a powerful source of guidance from a strong feminine role model who not only contributes to the family’s financial stability and standard of living but also demonstrates a positive work ethic of commitment, dedication, reliability and independence. Far from being disadvantaged, these children are fortunate to be raised in a healthy environment where women are respected as equals and valued for their intellect and professional competency as well as their maternal attributes. They are taught by first hand example to appreciate their mother as a whole person, with individual skills, talents, interests and passions – not just someone who exists only to meet their needs. These lessons will serve and support them in their own future relationships as wives and husbands. After all, we are all so much more than just a mother, right?
Inevitably, though, your kids will whinge and moan about why you have to go to work instead of coming on the excursion to the farm/museum/wherever. And at that moment, when they’re staring up at you with disappointment swimming in their puppy dog eyes, you could take the opportunity to talk to them about your reasons for working. Instead of aching with guilt, you could share some of your needs and interests and tell them that your work is part of who you are. Rather than collapsing into a pathetic heap, you could explain what makes you happy about your job and compare it to moments they are happy.
OR you could do what I do…..and whip them up a batch of pancakes with lemon and sugar after school…..because everyone knows only really GOOD mums do that!